Boleslav I ‘the Cruel’: bloody, bold and resolute in Bohemia

This brief introduction to the life of the Bohemian Prince Boleslav I ‘the Cruel’ first appeared in the Spring 2000 edition of Slovo, the journal of the Slavic Interest Group. It is reproduced here with some minor edits for clarity.

Boleslav I of Bohemia gets a rough ride from history, not least because of his cold-blooded murder of his brother Prince Wenceslas, the saint and “good king”. In fact, though, it was Boleslav who finally brought Bohemia under the control of the Přemyslids, laying the foundations of the Bohemian and ultimately the Czech state.

When, in 925 AD, Wenceslas successfully claimed the stone throne, it was only with the aid of military “manoeuvres” conducted by Arnulf of Bavaria. In 929, shifting politics and a joint campaign by Arnulf and the German Henry I compelled Bohemia to become a tributary of the emerging (Holy Roman) Empire. The option of becoming a part of the Empire polarised the nobility; the faction opposed was led by Wenceslas’ brother Boleslav.

Tensions culminated in Wenceslas’ murder on September 28th, 935. Boleslav seized power, shielded – by coincidence or shrewdness – from the Empire’s revenge by Henry’s death and the dispute over his succession.

Boleslav’s genius lay in his recognition of the fact that only a strong military deterrent could prevent Bohemia’s absorption by the German powers. However, a major hindrance to this was the lack of unity in Bohemia itself. It is worth remembering that at this time, he directly controlled only the Prague Basin, while other chiefs had their own territories across Bohemia. Within a year of taking the throne, Boleslav embarked on his first “lightning war”, crushing all opposition to his policies, liquidating all of the non-Přemyslid princes – even those able to draw aid from Saxony itself – and replacing them with pliant members of his own family.

Building a series of new fortifications along the natural borders of his core territory, Boleslav earned his sobriquet from the introduction during his rule of regular taxation, a harsh judicial system, and enforced Christianisation. He also introduced his own coinage, and one of his denarii names his wife as one Biagota.

Nevertheless, to maintain the army (and thus Bohemia’s independence) new sources of income were required. Boleslav sent his new armies along the great trade routes, securing the profits from as long a length of them as possible – northwards into Silesia and eastwards into North Moravia, taking Olomouc before moving on to Kraków, Wislania, the Przemyśl and Czerwien strongholds, and the territories of the Lędziane all the way to borders of the Kievan Rus. As well as the obvious income from plunder, booty and tribute, Boleslav also gained an almost inexhaustible supply of the most important trade good of all – pagan slaves.

Although he had a large army at his disposal by the late 940’s, after years of skirmishing Boleslav secured his western borders by paying homage to Henry’s successor, Otto I. His loyalty was shown in 953, when an uprising of the Slavs along the lower Elbe was defeated with the assistance of Boleslav’s veterans, and in 955 the Magyars were defeated on the Lech with the aid of a sizeable force of Bohemian cavalry.

Later, as Otto became distracted by events in Italy, Bohemia’s ties with the Empire loosened. In the 960’s, Bohemian troops aided Mieszko in his war against the Veleti, and around 965, Boleslav’s daughter Doubravka married the Polish prince.

Boleslav’s empire was large, but not cohesive – it lacked even a name to hold it together. Co-operation with the Church undoubtedly led to a “know-how transfer” in terms of administration, but Bohemia lacked its own bishops – and the Moravian diocese had lapsed in the pagan revival following the fall of Great Moravia. Bishoprics would, in theory, lead to the recognition of the Bohemian empire as a Christian state of equal stature with its neighbours. It was with this in mind that Boleslav campaigned for his murdered brother to be canonised. His daughter, the nun Mlada, led a mission to Rome in 968 to negotiate for a new bishopric.

Boleslav died in 972, the bishoprics unrealised. It is paradoxical that the brother he had canonised – the mild prince of a tiny territory dominated by its neighbours – is regarded as Bohemia’s defender and patron saint. The fact that the quiet Wenceslas is generally depicted as an armoured, mounted knight, when his brother was the conquering warrior who laid the foundations of the modern Czech state, is the ultimate irony.

The NATO Fail

In preparation for the NATO summit that starts today, Bohuslav Sobotka, the Czech Prime Minister, wrote a stirring piece for Foreign Policy magazine on why NATO members need to step up to the plate in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. While evidently sincere, it is unfortunately flawed both in terms of how it sees the Czech Republic’s position within NATO today, and in considering NATO’s future.
First of all, the situation here is not as rosy as the PM would have us believe. He makes a great point, for example, of lauding the “Czech Republic’s constructive role in world affairs and security challenges around the globe”, before claiming that the Czech Republic’s defence spending will rise from just 1% of GDP last year to 1.4% by 2020. At the same time he ignores the fact that NATO members are expected to have a military budget of around 2% of GDP, and stresses the loss of Czech lives in Afgahnistan – which remain in single figures.
This hardly suggests a genuine commitment of the kind that the Prime Minister is calling for from others. On the other hand, he is at least not following the lead of the son of a former Czech defence minister, who is convinced that the West is actively setting up a war with Russia.
On a broader level, Sobotka also declines to discuss the need for a fundamental rethink of what NATO acually does. He is hardly alone in this – Admiral (retd.) James Stavridis, also writing recently, likewise sees NATO revitalisation in traditional terms. Established as a military alliance, the organisation still thinks primarily in the classical military manner – for example, in response to a Russian resurgence, there are plans for a ‘spearhead’ rapid reaction force to be established, with equipment caches around Central/Eastern Europe.
This is a wonderful example of the well-known strategy problem of ‘generals fighting the last war’ – it takes no account of the style of hybrid warfare now being practiced by the Russians, whereby the use of ground troops, special operations forces, cyber warfare, agents provocateurs and political maneuvering under cover of plausible deniability seek to shape facts on the ground without ever reaching the level of full-scale war. Ironically, the tactics of what the Russians call ‘maskirovna‘ (a masking of one’s true intentions), can be traced back to one of the oldest military treatises of all: Sun Tsu’s Art of War:
“when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near… If sovereign and subject are in accord, put division between them… Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected. These military devices, leading to victory, must not be divulged beforehand.”
NATO has in the past recognised its inability to adapt successfully to these new scenarios, but it is the political establishment that seems unwilling to make the changes necessary to do so.
Until and unless both the military and the politicians accept that military power by itself is insufficient to face down these ‘new’ threats, no progress will be made towards establishing a new balance of power in the region – which will lead to more instability, and greater threats to (for example) energy security and electronic infrastucture. It’s time to start taking these issues seriously.

Addendum: September 5th, 2014. 

The Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Gen. Phil Breedlove, has also now publicly stated that

“steps should be taken to help build the capacity of other arms of government, such as interior ministries and police forces, to counter unconventional attacks, including propaganda campaigns, cyberassaults or homegrown separatist militias.”

It’s clear that the military get this; the politicians now have to step up to the plate as well.

Czech troops to the Middle East?

Czech troops to the Middle East?
The Czech President, Miloš Zeman,apparently thinks that it would be a wonderful thing for the Czech Republic to contribute peacekeepers to the UN’s mission in the Golan Heights. The government is clearly feeling the pressure, as Defence Minister Martin Stropnický has told reporters that the idea is under active consideration.
There seems to be some question as to the motivation behind the current proposal, though. Czech support for a strong Israel goes back as far as 1948, when Czechoslovakia supplied arms to help the country gain its independence, but Zeman in particular has long been recognised as holding unashamedly pro-Israeli and anti-Islamist (if not outright anti-Muslim)views; he is also the man who announced that moving the Czech embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem would be a good idea despite all the controversy over the city’s status, leading some to question his understanding of the Middle East peace process. One wonders, then, if the aim is really peacekeeping, or the use of the blue helmets as cover for protecting an old friend.
The Czechs are no strangers to sending troops to such dangerous places as Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosniaand Mali, as part of NATO obligations, EU projects and other international efforts. It’s a good way for a small country to make a contribution to world affairs and get itself both noticed and appreciated by larger powers. The Czech public, however, is still reeling from the loss of a group of soldiers in Afghanistan in July, the largest single loss Czech forces have sustained abroad since the Second World War. The general public likes to know that the country is doing its bit for international stability, but as the outpouring of grief this summer has shown, they are far from comfortable with the idea that this might actually cost lives.
Sending Czech troops to the Golan would however drop them into one of the world‘s nastier conflicts, with ISIS, al-Qaeda, Kurds and other rebel factions opposing not only the Syrian government but often each other. It’s an incredibly complex, and dangerous, situation, as shown by the besieging of Filipino UN troops and the uncertain fate of Fijian blue helmets there this week .
So the questions must be… is this country REALLY ready to commit forces to the Middle East? And what does it hope to gain by doing so?

Red or Dead: the Russian Levers in Central Europe

It’s time that those living in Central Europe woke up to Russia’s new tactics for projecting its interests abroad – especially since the press is generally unwilling to connect the dots.
The Bear has adopted what has come to be called the ‘Gerasimov doctrine’, moving away from visions of large-scale warfare to reflect a world of smaller-scale military and economic conflicts. In addition to using such obvious economic levers as gas and oil to influence the policies and behaviour of countries like the Czech Republic, we are now also seeing a return to – and the further development of – some classic Cold War-era techniques.
Foremost among these is the tactical support of non-governmental and non-profit organisations whose aims align with those of Moscow. The Czech BIS (secret service) warned in its 2007 annual report that Russian intelligence services attempted to influence politicians and the media to increase public opposition to a planned US radar base. More recently, NATO’s secretary general has issued a warning about Russian support for the anti-fracking movement across Europe.
Russia itself remains sensitive to Western support for NGO’s in Central/Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union for similar reasons – after all, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland apparently claimedsome $5 Billion had been sent to help the Ukrainian opposition before the regime change. It should therefore be no surprise to see Moscow employing similar tactics around the region, albeit on a more limited scale.
The question is how much of this effort will go towards actual destabilisation rather than just influencing policy. A destabilised country is less able to confront geopolitical threats because its attention is occupied by internal disputes, and particularly for smaller countries, their limited governmental bandwidth may take some time to recover. From Jobbik in Hungary to the French National Front, Vladimir Putin has already won many admirers on the European right – it would be a relatively small step for Moscow to start supporting the far right in places like the Czech Republic, where demonstrations (and sometimes violence) from such groups are already well on the way to becoming commonplace. A resulting uptick in anti-Roma sentiment in the general population was noted by the BIS in 2013. A revitalised radical right, supported from the East, could only lead to a further deterioration in the social situation.
At the same time, new technologies can also be exploited to create instability. In Bulgaria this year, two major financial institutions were forced to seek government protection after text messages, e-mails and phone calls were used to trigger runs on the country’s third and fourth-largest banks. While there is no proof (beyond the coincidence of its following the dropping of support for the South Stream pipeline) that this project was sponsored by a foreign government, it highlights a weakness that might in future be exploited by a tech-savvy opponent with access to an effective local network.
In the realms of cyberspace, it is well known that the Kremlin has form in encouraging both state and nominally independent players to agitate for its interests – just this month it managed to penetrate Ukrainian government servers and Ukrainian embassies across Europe, according to the Financial Times. We’re clearly not just talking about distributed denial of service attacks any more, but rather deliberate penetration by specially prepared malware, intended either to embarass the target and/or pilfer sensitive information. In the post-Snowden world, it would be naive to expect the US to have a monopoly on such behaviour.
Back in the real world, corruption opens many doors. Where there is a willingness to accept ‘lobbying fees’ from special interest groups without enquiring too closely as to the source of the money, there will obviously be space for foreign governments to attempt to manipulate not only local but also national policy. This risk too has been highlighted by the Czech BIS, for example in its annual report from November last year.
Lastly, there is the question of ‘protecting Russian interests’, which has not only been used as cover for the very obvious interventions in Georgia and the Crimea, but which also provides a means for pressuring national governments in any country with a sizeable Russian minority. According to the last census, there were over 17,000 Russians and 53,000 Ukrainians (ethnicity unknown) living in the Czech Republic in 2011. The sizeable contingent of Russians in Karlovy Vary is a cliché, but there are also well established communities in places like Prague and Plzeň. These offer a very convenient excuse for meddling under the guise of ‘concern’ – especially since expatriate umbrella organisations are also suspected by the BIS of having being thoroughly infiltrated by Russian agents. It also remains to be seen how many of these long-term and permanent residents will attempt to gain dual Czech citizenship, and thus voting rights, now that this has become possible. Certainly, there were a lot of Russians and Belarussians present when I went to take my own language and civics exams for the same purpose.
In summary, then, Russian influence over the economy, public/international policy and social framework is not only growing, it is crucial to how Russia now sees international relations as being shaped. It is no longer enough to think of this in theoretical terms: it’s time to open our eyes and recognise what is already happening. Unless we do so, it might not be possible to stop it.

City of Intrigues

And then I said:

“The fight against corruption is and remains one of the
priorities of the Czech government under my leadership”
Petr Nečas (left, with President M. Zeman), Feb. 14th 2012

Photo: ČTK

In an earlier post, I referred to Prague as a ‘city of ghosts‘, and indeed there are tales a-plenty of hauntings and apparitions in the Czech capital. Equally, however, it is a city of intrigue – not just at the Cold War level of spies and shady arms deals with Omnipol, or within the 9/11 investigation and ‘War on Terror’, but also at a more human and more personal level.

Take Clive and Katka (not their real names), for example, to all appearances a model couple. Tall, good looking and affable, Clive was an English executive with a minor multinational, on a long-term placement in Prague. Katka was a stunningly attractive market analyst rapidly rising through the ranks at a major Czech bank. They had met and married some time before I and my Czech wife moved in to an apartment in the same building as theirs; having various things in common we became friends quite quickly.

One unusual feature of Clive and Katka’s relationship was that their offices were on opposite sides of the same street in central Prague, with the result that they could literally wave to each other during their working days. Why, under those circumstances, anyone would decide that embarking on an affair with their secretary was a good idea is beyond me, but this is, alas, what Clive did – but the tale doesn’t end as one might expect. Clive and his secretary went to great lengths to keep their relationship secret not only from their partners, but also from their colleagues – no getting caught in the stationery cupboard or by an indiscretion seen through the window for them! 

No, Clive’s fall came one fateful day when, having overslept after a ‘late night project meeting’ and in a rush to return to the office, he picked up the wrong mobile phone from the kitchen table… and Katka picked up his identical phone a few minutes later, without realising. When an SMS arrived shortly afterwards, she looked at it automatically, but hadn’t been expecting it to say words to the effect of “hey big boy, last night was great, let’s do it again on Thursday!”. Katka didn’t get mad, she got even, calling the sender and suggesting that they have lunch to talk over what was going on. Apparently the two got on well together; the secretary declaring that it was just a fling and that she had no long-term interest in Clive, Katka decided that she didn’t either, and kicked him out, much to the amusement of his colleagues.

Fast forward to 2013, and a similar scandal engulfed the Czech political scene. In June that year, police raids uncovered millions of dollars in currency and gold bullion of ‘suspicious origin’ during raids on aides, political contacts and lobbyists linked to then Prime Minister Petr Nečas. One of those subsequently accused of misconduct was Jana Nagyová, his chief of staff and close confidante – very close indeed, apparently, as she was also outed as the PM’s mistress, and charged with using military intelligence to keep tabs on the PM’s wife to make sure they weren’t caught out. Petr Nečas, who had come to power promising to clamp down on corruption in public life (see picture), was compelled to resign; he later married Ms Nagyová. The latter was found guilty of this gross abuse of office earlier this year, but received only a suspended prison sentence. A ringing endorsement of the anti-corruption drive, or of the seriousness of the courts, this was not.

Neither, however, does it say much about the level of fidelity in Czech marriages; a Pew survey in 2013 found that 17% of Czechs found infidelity socially acceptable, 5% more than the traditionally liberal French, and this is perhaps reflected in the divorce rate, which has hovered at around 50% for many years – five of the Czech Republic’s ten former prime ministers are divorcees, which means that in this at least they are truly representative of their constituencies!

So as you wander through the streets of this beautiful city, remember that a great deal is going on behind all of those mysterious closed doors…